Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal
Reviewed by E. Michael Jones, Ph.D.
I remember sitting in the garden of the Hotel Euro in Mostar, a place which was reserved, at the time, for the Masters of the Universe - you knew this because of the armored cars parked out front—listening to some American state department official expounding on his role as a “peacekeeper” to the people sitting at his table and anyone in the immediate vicinity who was unfortunate enough not to be able to ignore him. The conversation began with a discussion of which political groups the Americans were going to promote in the New Multi-Culti Bosnia, which at the time looked pretty shabby because of the recent civil war. I remember one high-rise apartment building not far from the
Suddenly the Master of the Universe was talking about his grown daughter and his rocky relationship with her—which, it seemed, was going from bad to worse. And why? Well, because she never got over the fact that the Master of the Universe who was going to bring peace to Bosnia and resolve centuries of ethnic conflict in the region had divorced her mother, which is to say, his wife. The daughter was portrayed as having some sort of psychological hang-up in this regard, as if an attachment to her mother’s interests and the fact that her father had violated them were something like a bad case of bulimia, which she had acquired while away at college. The same man, in other words, who, we assume, could not control his passions, the same man who could not keep his family together, the same man who could not honor his marriage vows and who could not reason with his daughter, was going to bring peace to the Balkans. Aristotle would have had a good laugh over that one.
Tom Fleming, who spent time on the other bank of the Neredva during the shelling of the already mentioned apartment building, has turned what could have been just a bitter laugh into an examination of how such an absurdity from the classical point of view has become the norm for modernity. Like the Israeli military’s use of pornography, the divorced Master of the Universe is a modern cultural phenomenon which modernity cannot explain. This is primarily so because modernity doesn’t feel that any explanation is necessary. In order to explain what is going on here, Fleming takes us back to the classics—not, in this instance, back to Samson and Delilah, the Hebrew classic that explains how lust makes you blind, but to figures like Euripedes’ Hercules, the ruler who “realizes that, while he has gone around the world killing monsters, he has not taken proper care of his wife and children and father, who are his peculiar responsibility.” Particular responsibility is the theme of Fleming’s book. In fact his thesis might be summed up by saying that there is nothing but particular responsibility in this life, and the only way to understand the moral order is by understanding that fact.
The ancient Greek word for
jerk is “hero,” and, as Fleming tells us, “The hero’s dilemma is portrayed
starkly in the case of Agamemnon, Homer’s ‘lord of men,’ who could not launch
his divinely sanctioned expedition against
In his history of morals,
Fleming cites novelists and playwrights more approvingly than philosophers,
because the novelists are experts at particular responsibility. They describe a
moral order that is rooted in the circumstances of everyday life and not in some
utopian idea, based more often than not on a misunderstanding of physics. The
idea morals are at root a kind of physics is not a new idea; nor is the idea
that a state can be based on that principle new. Fleming sees in the ancient
sophists, “the progenitors of the modern philosophers who legislate for the
world without settling their own affairs in order.” It takes a novelist like
Dickens, however, to come up with a character like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, “whose eyes—so farsighted
that ‘they could see nothing nearer than
Fleming brings up a fact which Nietzsche, a classics scholar in his own right, understood well. What the Ancients called vice, the moderns call virtue. Those who reserve their “moral energies for vast undertakings and foreign affairs and refuse to waste them on spouses or friends or neighbors” have turned the moral order upside down, because the moral order is based on particular obligations radiating out in widening circles of decreasing obligation and emotional intensity, not vice versa. Man, Fleming points out, following Aristotle “is a zoon politikon, a creature framed to live in society, and if he thinks he can transcend the ordinary civilities of family, neighborhood and nation, he may turn out to be that ‘tribeless, lawless, hearthless man’ denounced by Homer.”
Since we are dealing with the most basic premises of human nature here, the order of charity did not change with the coming of Christ. Grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it. Nature remains the same, and the nature of moral obligation as a result always proceeds outward with decreasing intensity and obligation through all of the institutions of social life, which is to say oikos, ethnos, and polis - family, Volk, and state. “Since one cannot help everyone,” remarked Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana, “one has to be concerned with those who by reason of place, time or circumstances, are by some chance more tightly bound to you.” Fleming traces the same classical line of thinking from Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, who “makes it clear that charity is owed first to those who are closest to God and second to those who are closest to us by nature. He goes so far as to say that we are bound to love those connected to us more than we love those who are better.”
“Universal benevolence,” in other words, “was not the Greek ideal.” Loyalty to kith and kin was the ideal, and when as in the case of Antigone, loyalty to a dead, unburied brother came in conflict with the state, the moral choice meant loyalty to the more immediate bond. In this she differed from the Soviet student who denounced his parents and was murdered by his fellow villagers, an act which Fleming would probably applaud, and beneficiaries of the DARE program who are encouraged to inform the police about the drug habits of their parents.
The Catholic Church, which refers to this idea as the principle of subsidiarity, is the only institution left in the modern world which has preserved the idea of the primacy of particular loyalty: “The most successful effort” in explaining the concept of subsidiarity, according to which the higher should not do for the lower what the lower can do for itself, “was the Catholic response put forward by Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII, who defended a hierarchical social order that emphasized the importance of rooted institutions such as the family, the community and the nation.” This position, “summed up in the word subsidiarity,” reminds us that our first obligation is to those closest to us.
What Fleming is proposing in his book is the moral equivalent of a Copernican Counter-revolution. For those unfamiliar with Polish culture, Mikolaj Kopernik brought about a shift in mankind’s point of view when he showed that the earth revolved around the sun and not, as the ancients thought, vice versa. Man, according to the Copernican view, was no longer the center of the universe; he was an outside observer, a passenger on an insignificant planet looking at the center from afar. Copernicus’ revolution in astronomy was used to justify a revolution in morals, one that has come to be known as the Enlightenment.
In his book on the morality of everyday life, Fleming shows that in moral terms, the sun still revolves around the earth. The moral agent is not a disinterested observer; he is the center of the moral universe; and he can only make sense of that universe of obligations if he looks at it as a series of concentric moral spheres—something like Eudoxus’ theory of the celestial spheres. Instead of the earth surrounded by the spheres of the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars, Fleming has the moral agent surrounded by the spheres of family, ethnicity, and state, each exerting moral pull on man in inverse proportion to their distance. There is no action at a distance in Fleming’s moral universe. Either man makes the ether of his immediate vicinity vibrate with love or he has no moral effect whatsoever. Actually that is too optimistic an account of the actual state of affairs. The man who does not fulfill his immediate moral obligations, family first, will eventually create a moral system according to which vice will be portrayed as virtue. That, in fact, is precisely what has happened over the course of the past few centuries as European elites decided to emancipate the Christian idea of the brotherhood of man from the theological context which gave it its meaning the first place. The socialist international and the Sorosian new world order are nothing more than secularized Christendom, and in the process of secularization virtues got transmuted into vices.
Since the current day
Masters of the Universe believe in democracy, they believe that everyone can be
a hero, which is to say a jerk who abandons his wife and children while going
off to save the world. That sort of behavior used to be known as reprehensible;
it is now defined as virtue and Fleming describes just how that transformation
took place by giving us not only a history of classical morals but a history of
the “transvaluation of all values” as that has occurred since the
Enlightenment. What made this transvaluation of all values, to use Nietzsche’s
term, possible? The Enlightenment culminating in the French Revolution. Think
for a moment of the
The Marquis de Sade, who read de la Mettrie’s Man a Machine while incarcerated in the Bastille, is the best example of the Enlightenment “philosopher,” even though Fleming confers that dubious distinction on Voltaire. (Fleming describes Voltaire’s “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” as “the symbolic kick-off of international humanitarianism.”) The “divine” Marquis asks the “shavepate rabble” what “is to become of your laws, your ethics, your religion , your gallows, your Gods and your Heavens and your Hell when it shall be proven” that everything man holds as sacred and true and good is nothing more than an epiphenomenon based on “a flow of liquids.”
The result of the
Enlightenment’s appropriation of Copernicus is “alien” morality. The only way
that a man can be truly moral is by placing himself as a disinterested observer
off in space somewhere. William Godwin,
High altitude ethics has led
to inhuman societies no matter what the intention of those who propose those
theories. Fleming is no admirer of Tom Paine, whom he describes as a rootless
cosmopolitan, but he is an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. But this is the same
Jefferson who set out to rewrite the Bible to take into account what Jesus
really would have said, had he the benefits of
Fleming’s real hero is Samuel Johnson, because Johnson eschewed messianic politics as much as he cultivated particular obligations. Johnson was “kind to the poor, faithful to his wife, loyal to his king and country, [and] constant in the exercise of his religion.” He “saw his duty neither as a bloodless universal law nor as a bloody call to arms to lift mankind above the merely human.” As such, Johnson was “the ideal antidote to the poison of sentimental universalism” that has led to the international casino capitalism of George Soros on the one hand and the equally repugnant international socialism which “stigmatize[s] every manifestation of patriotism, ethnic pride and local attachment as racist” on the other.
If the enemy on the personal level is the “hero,” the disconnected individual, who, like Agamemnon is ready to sacrifice his daughter for the success of a business trip, the enemy on the political level is nationalism, which Fleming claims “is a false and destructive theory that leads a people to sacrifice what is real and vital in favor of an illusory future.” Like George Orwell, Fleming distinguishes between nationalism and patriotism, which Orwell defined as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of the life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Nationalism, of course, believes the exact opposite. The nationalist believes that one particular perspective is to be forced on everyone.
In his Nicomachian Ethics, Aristotle often refers to the virtue which has no name. The opposite of nationalism is a virtue which has no name in English, but it does have a name in Serbian. The “instinctive attachment to family and tribe” is known as “rodoljublje” in Serbian. It literally means “love of the stock” or “rod” or “love of kith and kin.” There are political entities which allow this sort of love and there are those which do not. In the 21st century the former are the exception and the latter the rule. In the history of nations we have two extremes constantly subverting the possibilities of international peace and cooperation. On the one hand, we have the primitive tribe which calls itself the “human race” and denies humanity to all other ethnic groups. Nationalism is simply a modern refinement of that idea. On the other hand, we have the followers of Zeno the Stoic, who consider themselves “citizens of the world,” and end up being rootless destroyers of culture.
The virtue which resides between
both extremes was known - politically, at least - as Christendom. Catholic
Europe was the successor of
Like charity, nationalism
begins at home, either as a civil war or social engineering, or, in the case of
If that particular
nationalist group is especially successful, it can then impose its nationalism
on other cultures outside its linguistic and cultural sphere. So Risorgiamento led ultimately to
reproached even by many who should know better for inserting itself into
Must fight? According to which necessity? It is probably sentiments like this which prompted Fleming to conclude somberly that “Rational, universal, objective ethics, culminating in the doctrine of international rights, represents a more profound threat to the human future even that the environmental havoc . . . that is also the residue of Western liberalism.
But perhaps not, because there is nothing really rational about the plan that Perle and Frum are proposing. In the ascendancy of the Neoconservatives, we have a return to a period before the Enlightenment. We have in Frum and Perle the return of the messianic politics of the 17th century Puritans and the Jewish revolutionaries who inspired them.
Fleming concludes his attack on “universal objective ethics” by claiming that we must now choose “among three scenarios, Christian charity, ruthless liberal individualism, and Marxian egalitarianism.” Conservatives, he tells us, are really just a different kind of liberal and “as liberals,” they will be forced to chose some form of Marxism volens nolens. But a book like An End to Evil belies Fleming’s conclusion. As anyone who was unfortunate enough to have been near a television during Ronald Reagan’s funeral knows, liberalism and conservatism, the last two options Fleming proposes, have merged in truly Hegelian fashion and have reemerged as something much more theological than the Enlightenment would have allowed. They have merged into something like emperor worship in the service of Messianic politics. After World War II, people like Russell Kirk tried to resurrect Edmund Burke, the man who attacked the French Revolution and praised the “little platoons” that command out loyalties as an alternative. Fleming rightly sees “Burkean traditionalism” as “a mechanism by which liberalism was able to self-correct before plunging into the abysses of hedonist individualism and Marxist collectivism. It could not, however, by itself serve as the basis of an illiberal political philosophy or movement.”
Unfortunately, conservatism didn’t self-correct anything ultimately. It went to its grave like Ronald Reagan ten years after it had descended into senile dementia. It was replaced, as the eulogies at Ronald Reagan’s funeral made perfectly clear, by something more primitive, by the messianic politics of the 17th century. “Jewish aspirations for national independence,” Fleming writes,
were not sanctioned by Jesus, and they erupted into revolutionary violence, first under Nero - when they were decisively squelched by Roman General and soon-to-be emperor Vespasian and his son Titus . . . and later under Hadrian. Christians viewed the Jewish disaster to some extent as a judgment on the Jews’ repudiation of Christ. In reacting against Jewish nationalism, Christians put strong emphasis on the universal brotherhood of man.
It would seem then that the
three scenarios which Fleming proposes have been superseded. Christian charity
remains an option, but “ruthless liberal individualism, and Marxian
egalitarianism” have merged into ruthless liberal egalitarianism of the sort
trumpeted by George Soros, Frum, Perle and Reagan’s eulogists. We are
confronted with overtly theological alternatives. The Enlightenment is over. So
is conservatism. It is place we have Nimrod, the builder of global empires and
whatever lessons can be drawn from the story of the
They still are.
E. Michael Jones is the editor of Culture Wars.
This review was published in the October, 2004 issue of Culture Wars.
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